By Ben Spar
With the baseball playoffs, the beginning of the NBA season and the Kevin Hogan starting NFL quarterback experiment (who would have thought!) all going on, I almost missed the most important piece of sports news of the past week. This Friday, the NCAA announced that the University of North Carolina athletics program would not be punished for the academic fraud scandal that has been unfolding for the past seven years.
The African and Afro-American studies department offered over 200 “bogus” paper classes over the course of two decades that didn’t meet, had minimal work and gave out high grades. Although student-athletes only make up 4 percent of the student body, it is estimated that 47 percent of the students in the paper classes were student-athletes. Moreover, the sports that make a profit were disproportionately represented; approximately 50 percent of the student athletes in these classes were football players, 12 percent were men’s basketball players and 6 percent were women’s basketball players.
Academic counselors would push these high-profile student-athletes towards paper classes to help keep them academically eligible, and in some cases, head coaches gave similar instructions. The NCAA concluded that since these classes are available to all students and since there is no proof that the classes are made to give student-athletes good grades, North Carolina has not committed any violations.
It truly does not come as a surprise that the NCAA decided against punishing North Carolina, and yet it is still alarming. If the education of student-athletes isn’t under the jurisdiction of the NCAA, then why does the organization exist? (Making money and ensuring that student athletes remain “amateur” a.k.a. unpaid, maybe?) The NCAA looking powerless is far worse than the alternative; recognizing that it has not lived up to its end of the trade that every major college athlete is forced to agree to: “your body, time and likeness in return for only a free college education.”
We can debate if that is a fair, ethical or even legal trade some other time, but it is clear that if student-athletes are not getting a college education, then some part of the deal is flawed. And please don’t tell me that it is entirely up to the players whether or not they “take advantage of their academic opportunities.” Is there not something fundamentally sickening about a prominent college coach convincing a student-athlete to attend that university by stressing the great education he will receive, knowing full well the student-athlete is at an elementary or middle school reading level.
Because of this, student-athletes are put in a situation where it is nearly impossible for them to “take advantage of their academic opportunities,” especially since they will have to spend “20” (yeah right) hours per week in athletic activities. Moreover, since the student-athlete will remain eligible, the coach doesn’t have to worry that putting the student-athlete in a remarkably inappropriate academic setting will affect his job in any way. In the end, these athletes have seriously risked their health and given their time for what? The memories? Other people to make millions of dollars? A (very slim) shot at a professional sports career? It is especially horrifying to consider that in many of these cases, the millionaire coaches and administrators are white males and the student-athletes getting nothing out of the deal are African American males. Well, I think that speaks for itself.
People are frustrated about this ruling for a lot of different reasons. Some hardcore college basketball fans were looking for the NCAA to take away championships won by North Carolina while using players who would have been ineligible without these paper classes. But really, this was about a lot more than the record books. Maybe the NCAA could have fined North Carolina and used that money to finally pay for the education they falsely promised to so many. Maybe the NCAA could have implemented future post-season bans and scholarship reductions to make other universities think twice about their own practices. But that would have involved admitting that student-athletes are often treated just as athletes, which kind of ruins the “amateurism” allusion in big-money college sports and leads to more questions than answers.
Contact Ben Spar at bspar ‘at’ stanford.edu.